How 2 unexpected wars are defining Biden's presidency President Biden pulled U.S. troops out of Afghanistan and showed no desire for other military adventures. But the unexpected wars in Ukraine and Gaza have become defining issues of his presidency.

Biden's Two Wars

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In his first months in office, President Biden ended America's longest war by pulling U.S. troops out of Afghanistan. Since then, two new wars have erupted, sparked by Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine and then the Hamas attack in Israel. We're focusing on international conflict as an election year issue in our series We the Voters this week. NPR's Greg Myre explains how these wars are defining Biden's presidency and complicating his reelection bid.

GREG MYRE, BYLINE: When Ukraine came under Russian assault, President Biden's response was swift.

ANNE APPLEBAUM: I think Biden surprised the world - he certainly surprised the Russians - by his decision in 2022 to create a broad Democratic alliance to defend Ukraine.

MYRE: Anne Applebaum is an author and historian who writes extensively on this war. And in the Israel-Hamas fight, Matthew Kroenig, at the Atlantic Council, gives Biden high marks for jumping in immediately to back Israel.

MATTHEW KROENIG: I think the Biden administration's instinct right after the October 7 attack was the correct one - to have Israel's back in its goal to eliminate Hamas.

MYRE: Both wars have their own distinct dynamics. And like most conflicts, the longer they grind on, the messier and more complicated they become. Biden's backing of Ukraine still has broad support in the U.S. and the West. However, his embrace of Israel faces widespread criticism, mostly over the high death toll for Palestinian civilians. Stephen Walt is a professor of international relations at Harvard.

STEPHEN WALT: The United States has provided unconditional support for an Israeli approach that is both unlikely to eradicate Hamas and has done enormous humanitarian damage.

MYRE: Biden is calling for a cease-fire in Gaza and has publicly chastised Israel over Palestinian civilian deaths, yet he still supports Israel's effort to fully defeat Hamas and has stepped-up U.S. military assistance. In Ukraine, Biden remains wary of provoking a Russian escalation and repeatedly sets limits on the kinds of weapons sent to Ukraine and how they can be used.

KROENIG: There's been kind of indecision.

MYRE: Again, Matthew Kroenig.

KROENIG: Should we provide tanks? First, the answer was no, then it was yes. Should we provide aircraft? First, the answer was no, then it was yes. Should we allow Ukraine to strike into Russian territory? First, it was no, then it was yes.

MYRE: Anne Applebaum says Biden should say explicitly how he wants the war in Ukraine to end.

APPLEBAUM: I would like him to say clearly that he believes the Ukrainians can win the war and that he understands that a defeat of Russia is the only way the war can end permanently.

MYRE: In contrast, Stephen Walt says Biden has been too willing to go along with Ukraine's goal of driving out all Russian troops, a goal Walt finds unrealistic.

WALT: We've let Ukraine basically determine the war aims. And so the United States, you know, has not put any meaningful pressure on Ukraine to cut a diplomatic deal and I think is unfortunately presiding over a long war of attrition that is doing enormous harm to Ukraine.

MYRE: In short, there's no way Biden can please everyone. He's popular among the Ukrainian and Israeli publics for his strong support. His relationship with the leaders of those countries is trickier. Biden and Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskyy met in Paris on Friday. Biden announced more weapons for Ukraine, and Zelenskyy expressed his gratitude. But Zelenskyy has also signaled frustration with Biden's policy of placing limits on U.S. weapons. Again, Anne Applebaum.

APPLEBAUM: Clearly, Zelenskyy and Biden have different goals. You know, Biden is fighting an election. Zelenskyy's fighting a war. They have a different timeline. They have a different sense of urgency. And I think it's fully understandable that there can be misunderstandings.

MYRE: Meanwhile, Biden has a long history of friction with Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and the Israeli leader has often defied Biden's wishes, says Stephen Walt.

WALT: The Biden team believe that by embracing and supporting Netanyahu, they would have influence over his actions, and that influence seems to be paltry at best.

MYRE: As Biden faces a reelection battle against Donald Trump, the conventional wisdom is that issues abroad rarely, if ever, determine a presidential contest. However, as Matthew Kroenig notes, the Middle East war is provoking strong emotions and ongoing protests against Israeli military action and Biden's support for Israel.

KROENIG: And so I think Biden wants to get these conflicts to die down before the election.

MYRE: President Biden hasn't and insists he won't send U.S. troops into the conflict zones in the Middle East or Ukraine. Yet he still faces tough decisions, says Stephen Walt.

WALT: The danger is that you can get dragged into these things the longer they continue. And I will give Biden credit for having resisted that temptation up until now; remains to be seen if he will continue to resist it if the situation gets worse.

MYRE: And both wars are sure to deliver more surprises. Greg Myre, NPR News, Washington.

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